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Boycotting Fast Fashion Doesn’t Actually Solve The Sweatshop Problem. Here’s Why

By Jaimee Marshall··  11 min read
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If you clicked on this article, you’re probably expecting me to say that boycotting fast fashion isn’t as simple as it sounds because it’s classist or only something that people in a position of privilege can do. I’m here to tell you that’s not the case, and I don’t even believe that to be true. The problem is not that people can’t afford to shop sustainably.

As I was researching to get an idea of public opinion on fast fashion, I found that people generally fall into one of two camps. The first is this: fast fashion is unethical, so we must boycott these companies and purchase ethically sourced options instead. The second is that fast fashion is unethical, but not everyone is in the economic position to choose where they source their clothing items, and therefore boycotting fast fashion is only something privileged (mostly white) people can do. 

For the record, I fall into neither of these categories and have created a new, third option, which is that the reality of fast fashion is, for many in developing countries, the lesser of two evils, and boycotting companies that use factory labor only hurts the workers, who have no other options to make money. 

Why Everyone Rightly Hates the Suffering of Fast Fashion

Fast fashion is a concept that has been popularized in the past 20 to 30 years. The golden days of slow fashion, where designers would construct thoughtful and elaborate designs for the four season, then have models wear them on the runway and retailers decide which garments they wanted to carry in their shops, is simply not how things are done anymore, at least not where most people shop. 

Now, retailers like H&M, Shein, and Zara produce up to 52 micro seasons in a single year. What enables them to do this is the secret behind fast fashion: mass-produced, cheap, trendy clothing that takes ideas from designers off the runway and puts them in stores within just a few weeks. The result is that consumers can always have the latest trends for an affordable price. 

Retailers like H&M, Shein, and Zara produce up to 52 micro seasons in a single year. 

Okay, but why is fast fashion so bad? There are environmental concerns about the overproduction of clothing by retailers that are constantly churning out new clothes at breakneck speed. But the biggest concern is the human suffering that the industry runs on. Fast fashion runs on cheap labor which means employing workers in the developing world for extremely low pay to work long hours without breaks and in unsafe working conditions. 

Most of these workers are women who face sexual harassment or violence, and some companies even use child labor. Fashion Checker claims that 93% of fast fashion companies don’t pay their workers a living wage, which is defined as enough to meet their basic needs. An estimated 170 million children engage in child labor, and many of them are employed in the fast fashion manufacturing process due to their nimble fingers, obedience, and the hope of providing additional income for their families. Fast fashion companies seek out low-skilled workers in countries like India and Bangladesh, where workers have limited access to education and a lack of opportunities. By producing clothes in sweatshops, they’re exposed to toxic chemicals, denied bathroom breaks, face malnutrition, and have even been killed due to preventable building collapses. 

The Grave Consequences of Boycotting Fast Fashion

The working conditions are objectively terrible. No one should have to live like this, and the suffering that workers in the fast fashion industry go through is unfathomable. This has caused a large debate in recent years, especially among consumers who are interested in shopping more sustainably and ethically. The most popular position in these conscious consumer circles is that purchasing from fast fashion brands is always unethical when it can be avoided because it directly funds companies that exploit workers and cause environmental destruction. But it does beg the question, what are the consequences that would follow from effectively boycotting fast fashion brands? 

Admittedly, it sounds virtuous to choose not to fund a company that partakes in unethical business practices you don’t agree with. As a vegan, I’m all too familiar with this. I don’t want animals to be killed so I don’t purchase animal products. However, human jobs are not a one-to-one comparison to funding the slaughter of animals. For starters, abstaining from purchasing products produced by sweatshop workers that make little money does not improve their working or economic conditions – it hurts them. 

No one chooses to work in a sweatshop when they have better alternatives. The tragic reality that many in the West don’t want to face is that working in a sweatshop for minimal pay and in terrible conditions is the option workers choose in the face of other, worse alternatives. Those alternatives include prostitution, living on the street, and having no money to purchase food or provide for their family. Cutting off what little income these workers have isn’t going to magically invent opportunity in their region. 

Working in a sweatshop for minimal pay is the option workers choose in the face of other, worse alternatives. 

Instead, sweatshop work is currently a necessary evil. I must clarify that I find the existence of this work abhorrent, but I understand that all of our actions have consequences. Merely by looking at the cause and effect of boycotting fast fashion, I had to ask myself: if we cut off the income to those who need it the most without providing them with any alternatives, how is this supposed to improve their quality of life? Isn’t this just making Kara the Sustainable Fashion Blogger (a totally made-up person) feel better without making any discernable improvement in the lives of the workers who would lose their jobs? 

The determination I’ve come to is that, yes, the working conditions and pay are terrible, but compared to what? Well, compared to our living standard and wages in the United States or the broader West. Unfortunately, the pay in these sweatshops is often more than workers can make in domestic work elsewhere in their country. In 2006, a study conducted by Benjamin Powell and David Skarbek used the data provided by anti-sweatshop activists to estimate the wages of workers in sweatshops and compare them to the average national income of their country. Even using data provided by anti-sweatshop activists, who were likely to misrepresent or underestimate the wages of sweatshop workers, the data showed that wages earned in sweatshops exceeded the national income in 9 out of the 10 countries surveyed. Half of the countries actually lifted workers three times over the national average. 

A Reluctant Defense of Sweatshops

Western activists, concerned citizens, and public figures often encourage banning the importation of goods that were produced by sweatshops. However, we don't have to theorize about what will happen if we do this, because it has been done before. According to Oxfam, factories in Bangladesh were facing an import ban in the ‘90s and were forced to fire 30,000 child workers. “That's great,” you might be thinking. “A child should be running around playing with their friends, not doing hard labor.” 

The reality, however, is that most of them ended up on the streets, took jobs with worse pay and conditions, and thousands turned to prostitution. They didn’t magically become enrolled in school, because their living conditions didn’t afford them that privilege. Their family needed all of the help they could get to provide food and shelter for themselves. People working in sweatshops are living in poverty-stricken countries, and you can’t merely invent opportunity out of thin air. Closing down sweatshops, boycotting them, or banning them only hurts the workers who will be forced into lower wages, worse conditions, starvation, and homelessness due to inevitable factory shutdowns.

In fact, sweatshops have actually done a lot of good for developing countries. At least, in comparison to what existed before they came along. They have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty and malnutrition. They bring technology and physical capital to developing countries that desperately need them, and over time, this causes an increase in wages. The reason wages are low in developing countries is because productivity is low and there are no palatable alternatives. 

Cutting off what little income these workers have isn’t going to magically invent opportunity in their region. 

A company will not pay a worker a wage that exceeds their productivity. At the end of the day, a company is out to make profits, they’re not running a charity. This is why calls to raise the minimum wage for workers in these developing nations are counterproductive. A company can’t afford to pay a worker more than the revenue they are generating, or to put it more bluntly, they have no incentive to. Raising wages above worker revenue would mean widespread job loss for the majority. Low-wage work is the only way the developing world can compete with the first world. If I'm doing my math correctly, some wage is better than no wage.

Sweatshops are the first stage of development in the process of a developing country joining the first world. It has been done in Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. In one generation, these countries leaped from pre-industrial standards of living to the status of the first world. Sweatshops encourage development, and it was the same situation in the United States and the United Kingdom, which both took over 100 years to make the jump. Young girls who work in sweatshops were less likely to be married off or get pregnant. Industrialization in Indonesia also reduced the number of malnourished children from over half the population to a third in 20 years. 

People in the West like to refer to sweatshops as slave labor, but this isn’t entirely honest. While it’s true that they don’t have better alternatives, it’s their choice to work there because it provides them with the best possible standard of living they could hope for. Though slave labor does still exist in the world, the fast fashion industry doesn’t run on it. It runs on the voluntary work of those who want to make more money than what other employers can offer them. 

Sweatshops are the first stage of development in the process of a developing country joining the first world. 

Sweatshops offer higher wages to these workers to create an incentive for their labor. “Slave labor” is a pejorative term used to describe sweatshops to encourage their abolishment or to ban importing goods produced by them. Again, this only eliminates the already abysmally small opportunity for higher wages and forces them to live in destitution. People from first-world countries also don’t have anything to say about any of the other labor work or lower wages of other jobs in developing countries. 

They specifically target the multinational corporations that offer employment opportunities (not from the goodness of their heart, but purely for profit) to third-world workers and call for their elimination. Why is this? The truth is something that Paul Krugman, professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University, has pointed out for decades – that consumers in the West feel uncomfortable and morally dirty for purchasing products that were produced using low-skill and low-wage labor, even though this is currently their best possible outcome. There are no outcries about shutting down the meager subsistence farming operations or scavenging through the garbage that are also prevalent employment scenarios in these countries.

Closing Thoughts

Boycotting fast fashion and sweatshops, in general, is only something that makes us feel good, but in reality, it’s hurting the workers who have to endure the brunt of the consequences. Purchasing products from Zara and H&M may actually be doing more to help impoverished workers in the developing world than the self-proclaimed sustainable, ethical fashion brand that costs $150 for a cotton t-shirt. Of course, consumers have the freedom to spend their dollar where they choose, but I know where I’ll be spending mine. 

The next time you catch a friend virtue signaling about fast fashion on Instagram, be patient with them. After all, the anti-fast fashion movement was born out of genuine care for fellow humans. However, someone’s very ability to provide a living for themselves deserves more thought than an Instagram infographic. If the intention to boycott fast fashion is to shut down factories, then that directly harms workers, depriving them of the jobs and wages they need to keep themselves from starving or putting themselves in harm’s way.

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